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NSF bill with dire implications for social sciences moves forward

Posted on behalf of Jessica Morrison.

A key US House of Representatives committee approved legislation on 28 May that recommends steep cuts to US National Science Foundation (NSF) social-science funding and controversial changes to the agency’s grant-making process.

The bill, authored by House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (Republican, Texas), seeks to reduce funding for NSF’s social, behavioural and economic sciences division by 22% in fiscal year 2014, to US$200 million. For fiscal year 2015, the bill recommends just $150 million.

It would also alter how the agency awards its grants, requiring the NSF to certify that the research that it funds is in the “national interest”.

Those provisions and others that would place new restrictions on NSF’s grant-making have spurred protests from the broader scientific community and concern from the National Science Board, which oversees the NSF. In an unusual 24 April statement, the board said it was concerned that “Congress intends to impose constraints that would compromise NSF’s ability to fulfill its statutory purpose”.

As an ‘authorization bill’, the legislation would not set the NSF’s budget. But it is intended to steer the agency’s priorities and recommend non-binding funding levels for its programmes. In an unusual twist, the authorization bill recommends less for the NSF in 2015 — $7.28 billion — than the $7.4 billion contained in a 2015 funding measure that the House is expected to approve this week.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington DC. Authorization bills typically offer grand proposals, he notes, while spending bills are considerably more conservative.

The authorization measure’s future prospects are uncertain. It is not clear whether the full House of Representatives will vote on the measure before Congress adjourns for the year. And the Senate committee that oversees the NSF has not introduced an authorization bill of its own. And any proposal from the Democratic-controlled Senate is likely to be quite different from the bill now moving through the Republican-controlled House.

“There’s a big question mark about whether there are enough votes [for the bill] to make it out of the House,” says Wendy Naus, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations in Washington DC. “It doesn’t stand a chance in the Senate.”

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